Correction appended, March 9
Finally, feminism is growing some teeth. This year, International Women’s Day is themed “Make It Happen,” a much-needed call to get cracking on some of the biggest issues for women around the world. It’s a message echoed by Executive Director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who recently posted a video message urging countries to “step it up” for gender equality, so that the world will be 50/50 by 2030. In 2015, “awareness” is out — action is in.
And it’s about time. The “awareness”-based solutions for problems facing women generate a lot of Twitter activity, but little genuine change. The last year was full of online discussion of feminist issues, from #yesallwomen to #rapecultureiswhen to #whyistayed, which help inform the public and give voice to survivors. But raising awareness is only the first step — in order to create an equal world for women, we need real policy change, and lots of it. Legislative changes won’t be popular with everyone, not even with all women. But the international community is finally starting to see that awareness is simply not enough.
We will learn more about some of the tangible goals for the next few decades of women’s advancement later this week, at the 59th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women, which is celebrating 20 years since the famous Beijing Platform for Action. If you’re not up on your UN history, that was where Hillary Clinton famously said “women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights” in 1995.
Here’s a brief look at some of the big improvements that have been made for women since Beijing. There are still major obstacles for women: violence against women is still a pandemic, too few women are in leadership roles and most workplaces don’t make enough accommodations for working mothers, especially in the United States. But there have been some brief glimmers of progress, evidence that when we commit to global action for women, we actually can move the needle toward greater gender equality. Here are some stats that will make your day (according to UN Women website):
1) Education: Since 1995, we’ve reached a point where girls and boys worldwide are enrolling in primary school at almost equal rates. That is a huge step forward. The next step is secondary school, where the gender gap widens again.
2) Maternal Mortality: In the last 25 years, maternal mortality has dropped by 45%. But there’s still more work to do — 800 women a day die from basic pregnancy complications, mostly in the developing world.
3) Water access: Water is an important issue for women, since in many developing countries girls are responsible for fetching water, a task so time-consuming and difficult that it can keep them out of school or put them in danger of being attacked. Between 1990 and 2010, 2 billion people gained access to clean drinking water, relieving the burden of water-fetching from girls. Still, in Sub-Saharan Africa, women spend 16 million hours per day getting water.
4) Leadership: Since 1995, the number of women serving in legislatures has nearly doubled — but that still only translates to 22% of politicians worldwide.
There’s still a lot of work to do, especially when it comes to getting women into leadership roles and stopping violence against women. But the advances in health and education since 1995 have been striking. It means we should take heart — even if there’s a lot more work to do, progress is possible. It’s already happened, and we can make it happen again.
Correction: The original version of this story story misstated the implications of a statistic regarding maternal mortality. It has dropped 45% in the last 25 years.